Never So Few (1959): John Sturges’ WWII Actioner and Romantic Melodrama, Starring Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida, Steve McQueen (on Road to Stardom)

John Sturges’ Never So Few tries to combine a WWII actioner with a romantic melodrama by casting Frank Sinatra and Italian Gina Lollobrigida in the leads.

Grade: C+ (**1/2* out of *****)

Never So Few
Never So Few poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The film is an unsuccessful mixture of genres, with the main action bogged down by a rather dull romantic subplot.

Never So Few is mostly remembered today for elevating the stature of Steve McQueen to major stardom, even though he was cast in a secondary role.

Sammy Davis Jr. was originally slated to play McQueen’s role, but Sinatra was upset by a radio interview Davis gave. McQueen was known at the time for the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive and the horror movie The Blob.

Never So Few began a crucial collaboration with director Sturges, who went on to cast McQueen in his breakout role, as second lead in The Magnificent Seven, and later as the motorcycle-jumping lead in the classic hit, The Great Escape.

On the original theatrical poster, only Sinatra and Lollobrigida were top billed. But in the 1967 re-release, McQueen’s credit was moved above the title, and he was featured prominently in the artwork.

The overwritten script is loosely based upon an actual OSS Detachment 101 incident, reported in a 1957 novel by Tom T. Chamales.

Sinatra’s character of Captain Tom Reynolds is inspired by a real OSS officer and, later, Illinois sheriff, U.S. Navy Lt. Meredith Rhule.

The film diverges from the novel in that Reynolds dies in the book but survives in the film and will presumably go on to marry Carla after the war.

Lavishly shot on location in Burma, Thailand, and Ceylon, the film follows Captain Tom Reynolds (Sinatra) and his fellow OSS operatives, Captain Grey Travis (Peter Lawford) and Corporal Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen), as they lead Kachin natives in their fight against the Japanese in Burma.

In 1943 Burma, a unit of US and British forces joins with the native Kachin to hold back the Japanese Army. The unit, under the joint command of American captain Tom C. Reynolds and British captain Danny De Mortimer (Richard Johnson), with guidance from Kachin leader Nautaung, are hampered by limited supplies and lack of medical care.

After an ambush mission during which the unit wipes out a Japanese squad, Tom’s aide, Bye Ya, is wounded. Lack of morphine motivates Tom to shoot Bye Ya (Guy Lee). Tom then angrily contacts army headquarters in Calcutta, where he and Danny are met by Corporal Bill Ringa (Steve McQueen), their driver.

The men meet OSS regional commanding officer Col. Fred Parkson (Robert Bray), who introduces them to the wealthy merchant Nikko Regas (Paul Heinreid) and his girlfriend, Carla Vesari (Gina Lollobrigida). Tom is immediately attracted to Carla, but she mocks his provincial American background.

Tom demands a doctor for the unit, but Parkson informs him that medical officers are in short supply, and so it will be their responsibility to secure a doctor. Parkson then orders the men to take two weeks leave, but Tom refuses unless the Kachin are also granted leave. Tom asks to have the brave and bright Ringa reassigned as his new aide.

Tom and Carla are joined by Danny for a tour of the Himalayan villages. During the tour, Danny falls ill and is misdiagnosed as having typhus by military doctor Capt. Grey Travis (Peter Lawford); Danny insists he has malaria.  Nikko cautions Carla of the unreliability of Americans, when he notices her attraction to Tom.

After Nikko departs for China, Carla spends more time with Tom, who insists she leaves Nikko. Tom and the others return to the Kachin hills to spend Christmas with the troops, but their celebration is interrupted when the Japanese unexpectedly attack and wound Tom.

Ringa learns that the strike was planned with inside information; Billingsley, and a native Shan girl have betrayed them. When Nautaung orders the girl to be shot and Billingsley to be “put into the Circle” and ritually executed, Travis protests vigorously, but Tom insists that the dangers of jungle warfare demand harsh measures.

Travis then sends Tom and the other soldiers wounded in the attack to the air base hospital in Calcutta to recover. Parkson orders Tom to destroy an airfield in Ubachi, near the Chinese border. When Tom claims that his unit lacks the supplies to make a successful attack, Parkson assures him they will receive supplies from Chinese allies.

Visiting Carla, Tom is disappointed to find her in a luxurious hotel, at Nikko’s expense. He departs after criticizing Carla’s inability to put aside her desire for luxury.

Tom promotes Ringa to Second Lieutenant and places him in operational command, then proceeds to Calcutta where he is placed under house arrest on a murder charge.

Carla confesses that Nikko is with intelligence, and she is his assistant. She advises Tom to say that battle fatigue caused his defiant incursion into China, but he refuses.

Gen. Sloan advise Tom not to mention the warrants, demanding that he apologizes to representative of the Chinese government. When Tom refuses, military psychiatrists are sent to examine him for mental discharge, but he refuses to cooperate.

The Chinese rep arrives, and Sloan now sides with Tom, demanding that the warlord who killed Americans be reported and that apology be issued from China to the U. S.

In the end, Tom reunites with Carla before returning to his Kachins.

The movie was popular at the box-office, but it failed to earn a profit due to its high cost.

Frank Sinatra as Captain Tom Reynolds
Gina Lollobrigida as Carla Vesari
Peter Lawford as Captain Grey Travis
Steve McQueen as Corporal Bill Ringa
Richard Johnson as Captain Danny De Mortimer
Paul Henreid as Nikko Regas
Brian Donlevy as General Sloan
Dean Jones as Sergeant Jim Norby
Charles Bronson as Sergeant John Danforth
Philip Ahn as Nautaung, leader of the Kachin
Robert Bray as Colonel Fred Parkson
George Takei as Soldier in Hospital (uncredited)
Kipp Hamilton as Margaret Fitch
James Hong as General Chao (uncredited)
Mako as Soldier in Hospital (uncredited)
Maggie Pierce as Nurse in hospital (uncredited)


Directed by John Sturges
Screenplay by Millard Kaufman, based on Never So Few, 1957 novel by Tom T. Chamales
Produced by Edmund Grainger
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Edited by Ferris Webster
Music by Hugo Friedhofer

Production company: Canterbury Productions

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Release date: December 7, 1959

Running time: 124 minutes

Budget $3,480,000
Box office $5,270,000